Deseg Dispute

Has TUSD's desegregation efforts driven students to charter schools?

TUSD is suffering withdrawal symptoms as it attempts to get out of a 27-year federal desegregation agreement while staying hooked on desegregation taxes that provide the region's largest school system with one-fifth of its annual budget.

TUSD leaders are promising students, parents and taxpayers--and spending money on lawyers to tell U.S. District Court Judge David C. Bury--that it has fulfilled its obligations to erase vestiges of its former dual system. At the same time, TUSD is pleading to retain its desegregation money, at $62.5 million this year. In 22 years, TUSD has spent $563 million on desegregation. Critics have long contended TUSD hides routine expenses--such as locksmiths, electricity and maintenance--in its desegregation money.

While it wants to keep the desegregation money, TUSD wants to dump the desegregation order, its programs and its magnet schools as a way to restyle itself to make it more attractive and competitive.

After clinging to the case and the taxes it allowed, TUSD now says that the desegregation case, its programs and its magnet schools have damaged the district and caused the exodus--mostly white-flight--from its schools. TUSD has missed out on 10,000 students, mostly to the rival charter schools that proliferate within TUSD's expansive boundaries.

The slide-in students and the state revenue attached to each student has TUSD leaders--from board members to Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer--preaching relief from the desegregation order. And they have an ardent ally in Paul Karlowicz, president of the Tucson Education Association, the powerful teachers' union.

Karlowicz has specifically said the magnet schools TUSD created as part of desegregation have eliminated the opportunity for students to attend their neighborhood schools. Though in place for decades, those magnet schools and their race requirements have turned off students and parents. They have found alternatives in the charter schools.

TUSD is educating about 60,000 students this year, down from 64,000 just a few years ago, which has meant a drop in revenue that has contributed to the district's multi-million-dollar budget deficit.

Bury, appointed by George W. Bush, took control of the desegregation case last year after Judge Alfredo C. Marquez, long on senior status, stepped aside when a conflict of interest developed after a member of his family used TUSD's main law firm for an unrelated matter. Bury's first question was why the desegregation case, which began with the first lawsuits in 1974, had not been concluded. He set up a schedule to dismantle the case, as has been done in formerly segregated school systems across the country.

But while TUSD is talking about changing its ways on desegregation, its lawyers are in no hurry to speed up the process. In court, they are throwing up barriers to lawyers for African-American and Mexican-American plaintiffs who want more information before agreeing that the desegregation order should be lifted.

Mexican-American plaintiffs, handicapped because they lack local attorneys, are relying on lawyers from the Los Angeles office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

MALDEF lawyer Hector Villagra has requested detailed information on past TUSD desegregation audits and previous compliance reports by the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Civil Rights, among other reports.

Federal authorities are ready to sign off on TUSD's plan, however.

John R. Moore, the Justice Department lawyer long assigned to the TUSD case, said in Jan. 31 court papers that "absent credible evidence to the contrary that may be produced by others or offered by school patrons ... the United States has no substantive objection to (TUSD's) request for unitary status."

Richard Yetwin, the lawyer who has handled TUSD's desegregation case since day one, said many of Villagra's requests could be satisfied with clicks on TUSD's Web site. But Yetwin balked at 11 of MALDEF's information requests, contending they are "not discoverable because they are not relevant or likely to lead to admissible evidence, or are otherwise objectionable."

For example, Yetwin said MALDEF is not entitled to a list of advanced placement classes by school with the composition of each class as well as the ethnic and racial composition for all special education resource and self-contained classes by disability category and by school for the last 10 years.

Rubin Salter, Jr., the lawyer for African-American plaintiffs, also has demanded to know specifics on which students are offered what classes--particularly advanced courses--in TUSD.

Yetwin, in court papers, said the requests are "outside the scope" of the desegregation stipulation.

"If qualified Latino students have been denied placement in AP classes, they have the ability to sue the district over that denial," Yetwin wrote.

Salter, whose wife is a longtime TUSD administrator, also wants TUSD to pay between $65,000 and $85,000 for new fees and costs for an attorney, paralegal and expert witnesses. Yetwin responded that the 1978 desegregation settlement called for TUSD to pay the Salter and other lawyers for African-American plaintiffs and the lawyers for the Mexican-American plaintiffs $500,000 "for their attorneys' fees and costs, both past and future."

Yetwin chided MALDEF for its sudden interest.

"MALDEF has been actively involved in this case on only three occasions" since the entry of the settlement, Yetwin said in court papers.

MALDEF participated in the debate over new plaintiffs seven years ago and objected in 1993 when TUSD Board Member Joel T. Ireland led a failed drive to close Catalina High School, but MALDEF and other critics, Yetwin noted, did not stop Ireland and the TUSD board from choosing a site for a high school on the southwest side.

That high school has not been built. The property has high concentrations of radon and high engineering costs that at the time of the purchase were $1 million. The seller was the real estate company controlled by members of the family of then-U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini, a Democrat. Yetwin is a partner in DeConcini McDonald Yetwin & Lacy, a firm founded by the former senator who remains a shareholder while he practices law in Washington, D.C.

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